Today, poetry’s relationship with the public feels complicated. Its roots in English and American cultural history are massive and continue to sprout new offshoots, but poetry’s presence in our public literary consciousness over the past thirtyish years has sunk below the waves of prose. I find this state of affairs less depressing than exciting and fascinating. The imperative to revive poetry in the public eye gives us a chance to harness creativity and social technology in ways that will change poems for good. Both the city of Portland and the state of Maine are about to take a major step in this direction.
Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance (MWPA) is a Portland-based nonprofit that works to “enrich the cultural life of Maine by supporting writers and the literary arts.” This past month, MWPA teamed up with Maine’s new poet laureate, Wesley McNair, to introduce “Take Heart: A Conversation in Poetry.” The initiative will give Mainers frequent opportunities to read poems written by the people who live here: a series of poems to be published weekly in newspapers across the state. You’ll find the first poem, "April," by Stuart Kestenbaum, the first week of May in over twenty-four papers that range from The Portland Sunday Telegram to the Aroostook Republican, which extends the project’s radius almost 300 miles toward the northeast Canadian border. As a poet who often hears people sigh, "I just don't get poetry," I felt deeply encouraged when I heard about Take Heart. If you’re not writing your own poems or earning a college degree in literature, chances are you have limited contact with poetry written today. Sneaking poems under the noses of average readers will begin to break an amplified silence that has made poetry feel so alien to our daily rhythms.
MWPA’s crucial support for McNair’s project represents a unique collaboration in the history of Maine’s laureateship, which was legislated in 1995. Until now, laureates received no financial support or capacity to launch new poetry initiatives. Oddly enough, Augusta just didn’t write those details into law. Joshua Bodwell, Executive Director of MWPA, said he “wanted to fill that void.” Portland is the MWPA’s headquarters, but the nonprofit is a statewide literary organization and so decided to offer an unofficial home-base for McNair during his five-year term. Bodwell has allotted him the space, funding, and grant-writing capacities of nonprofits and has established the post of “Special Assistant to the Poet Laureate,” a young poet’s dream job, now enjoyed by David Turner. McNair and Turner are building a library of poetry written by the poets of Maine, located in Portland, from which the Take Heart series will be curated. In its readiness to make McNair’s vision a reality, MWPA represents an understanding that our creative community will blossom further when Portland-based organizations recognize and connect with the broader region that influences the city.
With MWPA as the project’s support system, McNair will choose poems of the highest quality crafted by Maine citizens. Quality, in this instance, means remaining accessible to a broad readership without sacrificing the complexities of life that poetry must illuminate. What I find most exciting about Take Heart’s selection is the sheer range from free verse to metered, rhymed, and received forms; from Maine’s classic poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to remarkable contemporary poets who you’ve never heard of; and from visions of our very own Casco Bay to mindstreams that escape the borders of geography. McNair wants the “diversity and regions of the state to be reflected” in the project, yet he also realizes that limiting the entire subject matter of the series to Maine content “would limit the true richness of our poems.” Instead of poems that beat lobsters and blueberries and Baxter St. Park to death, we’re going to find works loosely arranged around a diverse yet Maine-centered psyche. “If a poem about a region is good,” says McNair, “it’s not only about that place… it’s about all places.” Most of all, the poems will lead us to honor our “emotional and intuitive self,” which McNair beautifully argues is “the deepest self that we have.”
Thanks to MWPA, you can read McNair's galvanizing and eloquent speech about Take Heart from the April 20, 2011 poetry celebration at the Blaine House in Augusta. It's available for download here.